Wednesday night I had the pleasure of dining at Bouley. I had been to Bouley Bakery twice, the last time being several years ago, and had not been back since the restaurant was expanded and renamed simply Bouley. I did some searches on this board and found many mixed reviews ranging from people loving the restaurant to people saying it was the worst meal they ever had. My two previous experiences had both been incredible and despite the mixed reviews I had only the highest expectations for this meal. To put it simply, I came away from the meal with such a feeling of joy and exhilaration that I believe that from start to finish this was the best meal Ive ever had.
We arrived at the restaurant just on time for our eight oclock reservation and approached the large wooden door. Upon opening the door and walking in you are greeted by a rack of apples covering the entire left wall of the entry hall. These apples create the most amazing smell that is the perfect welcome into Mr. Bouleys world in which everything seems designed to extract pure essence of each ingredient.
Once we passed through the entry room and entered through another door into the reception area we were warmly greeted by a young woman who immediately showed us to our table.
We ate in the White Room. For those who have not been to Bouley, there are two dining rooms. The Red Room is the original dining room from Bouley Bakery where we dined during our previous two meals at the bakery. This room has vaulted ceilings with the walls and ceilings painted a shiny rich red color.
The White Room is to the right of the reception area and is where the bakery used to be. It is decorated in a similar style with vaulted ceilings but this room has white stucco covering the ceiling and walls. The white room is about half the size of the red room and has only about a dozen tables making the restaurant seem incredibly intimate. The overall effect of the décor seems to transport you to some ancient cellar in the French countryside.
What I love is that while the rooms are beautiful they dont seem overly formal. In fact, the restaurant seems to be by far the most casual of all the top New York restaurants. Although I saw many people wearing jackets or suits, I would guess a third of the diners didnt have on jackets or ties, yet everyone seemed comfortable no one was out of place. I think that it is great that a serious restaurant can create an atmosphere where people can dress the way they want to in beautiful but unpretentious surroundings and simply focus on the food.
Once seated, we were handed the menus and it didnt take long before deciding to go with the five course tasting menu. While the a la carte selection at Bouley is extensive, I would highly recommend getting the tasting menu since Bouleys cooking is so focused on each individual ingredient that you really need several courses to truly sample a wide range of flavors. Also, since the regular tasting menu is not set, but rather provides three or four choices for each course, everyone should be able to find something to their liking.
Our first glimpse at the kitchen took the form of an amuse of smoked salmon over a purée of some green vegetables with a few other ingredients which I cant recall. This dish, like everything else we would experience that night, was light and refreshing and all of the ingredients complemented each other perfectly.
My first course consisted of phyllo crusted shrimp, crab meet, and a single scallop in a broth. This dish brought out the flavors of the seafood perfectly. In particular, the scallop was incredible: tender and flavorful with all of the tastes of the sea seemingly wrapped up in each bite.
My next course was sea bass with a scallop crust served over vanilla infused rice. This was simply the best piece of seafood Ive ever eaten in my life. The combination of the crispy crust and the moist fish combined with the vanilla rice complemented each other perfectly and created the most amazing flavor and texture.
My main course was pan seared Kobe beef. The dish consisted of about six very thin slices of perfectly cooked beef. This was the most tender and by far the most flavorful piece of meet Ive ever had, and it made me realize just what Mr. Bouleys cooking philosophy is all about. Each dish we ate was simple and contained only a few ingredients, yet each perfectly captured the pure essence of that ingredient. The beef didnt have that charred taste it so often does, and it didnt have some fancy sauce to cover up its own natural flavor. Actually, after my first bite I was taken aback a bit since this beef didnt taste like all of the other pieces of beef Ive had. It wasnt until I thought about it that I realized the surprising taste came from the pureness of the ingredient. The only way I can accurately describe it is to say that it tasted like what you think beef should taste like in your mind but in reality never quite does.
Next, we decided to add a cheese course for the table to share. A bread waiter came around with a half dozen choices of sliced bread to choose from to go with the cheese. This was in addition to the two types of rolls served throughout the meal, all of which were absolutely fabulous, among the best bread Ive had. There is no cheese cart. Instead, a plate of about seven sliced cheeses was placed on the table and each sample was explained to us. I know very little about cheese but I have to say every one of the samples tasted great, increasing in strength and complexity as we went around the plate.
Our first dessert course was a selection of sorbets in a fruit soup. These were incredibly fresh and light and the perfect transition to dessert.
We were then presented with a complimentary dessert amuse consisting of a glass layered with fresh strawberries, white chocolate mouse, frozen strawberry ice, and fresh yogurt. This was probably the best fruit dessert Ive ever tasted. The contrasting textures of the fresh and frozen strawberries combined with the yogurt and mouse to create a most delightful combination. This dessert seemed to fall perfectly in line with Mr. Bouleys philosophy by creating the essence of strawberries. As a side note, I noticed every table seemed to get this complimentary dessert regardless of whether or not they ordered the tasting menu.
For the final dessert course I had the chocolate cake with warm molten center. It seems as though virtually every upscale New York restaurant offers some version of this dessert, but I have to say none of the many versions Ive sampled have been better than this one (although some have probably equaled it). Along with the petit fours, it was the perfect end to a most incredible meal.
I am not a wine expert but the bottle we had, an Italian white, tasted excellent to me.
As for the service, it was simply wonderful. Some reviews Ive read have said that the service was snooty. This was not our experience at all. Our waiter was completely professional and extremely knowledgeable, answering all of our questions and making no hesitation in recommending dishes. Yet, he was far from cold or overly formal. In addition, the lovely young French woman who brought most of our dishes and explained each one was one of the nicest servers Ive encountered, leaving us with her warm smile after ever dish she brought.
One final note about the price. The dinner tasting menu at Bouley is $75 (although the kobe beef carries an incredible $20 supplement). This is far less than the tasting menus at all of the other four star restaurants. In fact, it is less than or equal to the regular prix fix at many restaurants I dont find nearly as good. In addition, the lunch tasting menu (which I have not yet tried) is only $35 (I think). While this is certainly not cheap, I do feel it is probably the single best fine dinning bargain in New York. To not only create a magnificent meal, but also to make that meal such a great value is truly a testament to Mr. Bouleys talent and dedication.
Ive had the great privilege of eating at many fabulous restaurants in New York and around the world. However, Ive noticed over the past several years that while the standards of dinning in New York have risen dramatically, it seems harder and harder for a restaurant to truly stand out from the pack. Im probably just spoiled, but recently I have found myself leaving a meal at a highly regarded restaurant feeling as if the food I ate was great, but a little bit upscale generic.
I dont know if others feel this way but it seems to me that the menus and even the tastes of the food at many upscale New York restaurants have become almost interchangeable. This is certainly a good thing in that I feel there are so many really good restaurants at which to eat and get great and exciting food (as a side note, an article from a while back in New York magazine Bouley School told of how many of the chefs at these new restaurants were trained by Mr. Bouley). However, this trend makes it increasingly hard for a restaurant to truly distinguish itself.
At Bouley, virtually everything I tried stood out by introducing me to flavors that I thought I knew, yet had never tasted so clearly before. The best analogy I can think of is the feeling of putting on a pair of glasses for the first time and seeing everything that had previously appeared slightly blurry more clearly and sharper than before. What glasses do for the eyes, Mr. Bouley does for the taste buds. Thank you to Mr. Bouley his entire staff for letting me taste clearly as I never have before.